I apologize for the lateness of this “year-end” music list. Hey, good music never goes out of style, right?
At the end of every year, I find myself scrambling in an effort to listen to every “important” album that came out during the year just in case I missed the “best” album of the year. Of course, as my self-aware quotation marks indicate in the previous sentence, matters of importance and quality are largely subjective, leaving the music critic (if I dare call myself a music critic) in a precarious position. Do I dare include an album that garnered mediocre reviews simply because I rocked out to it almost every single day in my car? Do I put a flawed album on my list because I came back to it time and time again? Does anyone even care what I think about when I’m coming up with this list? The answer to that last question is probably a resounding no, so on with the list. What follows below is my attempt to find a balance between enjoyment and importance, accessibility and pretension, and fun and depth in this year’s music.
10. Cold War Kids–Dear Miss Lonelyhearts
The Cold War Kids would probably find themselves off my list this year, except for the fact that I love “Miracle Mile,” the opening track of Dear Miss Lonelyhearts. Almost every time I went on Spotify, I would hit play on “Miracle Mile,” enjoy listening to it, and move on to other music. However, as the year went by, I found myself not moving on after “Miracle Mile” was over, as the rest of Dear Miss Lonelyhearts slowly grew on me. At first listen, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts sounds like any other album made by a good indie rock band, but with repeated attention small subtleties rise to the surface. Things like how the band transforms the slow-burning “Fear & Trembling” into a powerful, haunting ballad without ever changing the tempo or volume. Or how the background vocals on tracks like “Water & Power” and “Fear & Trembling” add another layer of emotion to already strong tracks. I could continue listing off reasons why you should listen to Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, but I think you get the idea.
9. Ka–The Night’s Gambit
The Night’s Gambit is a soundtrack to walking down grimy, rain-soaked streets, shadows haunting every corner and doorway—a film noir rap album. Narrator, protagonist, and antagonist, Ka carefully constructs a fractured, paranoid ambiance throughout the album, amplified by impeccable production and carefully crafted lyrics. The film noir-esque narrative Ka spins on The Night’s Gambit is convoluted and slow-burning, punctuated with moments of revelation in a turn of phrase or perfectly-placed sample. Eschewing the production pyrotechnics of Magna Carta Holy Grail and the grandiose proclamations of Yeezus, it’s a credit to the strength of Ka’s personality and vision that he makes each of these tracks crackle with electricity given the relatively slow pace of the album. Combining this electricity with effortless flow and lyrics that drip authenticity, Ka uses The Night’s Gambit to address a number of difficult issues with remarkable restraint and surprising results, making it one of the best hip-hop albums of the year. Warning: semi-explicit lyrics in the video below.
8. Janelle Monae–The Electric Lady
From beginning to end, The Electric Lady bristles with excitement and innovation, a truly exhilarating listen. While the album cross-pollinates hip-hop, R&B, soul, and jazz, etc. (just check out “Q.U.E.E.N.” and “Electric Lady”), Monae’s personality and voice unify the album, driving it forward. The first half is more upbeat and energetic, while the second half slows down and lets Monae’s versatile voice shine. A track like “Ghetto Woman” exemplifies the joy of listening to The Electric Lady; it starts slow with Monae’s sultry, smoky vocals before blossoming into a horn-laden bridge, where Monae breaks it down with a rap verse over a rapid-fire guitar solo. I dare you to find that on another album this year…or you could just listen to The Electric Lady.
7. The Men–New Moon
While The Men’s 2012 release, Open Your Heart, failed to leave a lasting impression on me, 2013’s New Moon delivered a knock-out punch of folk-infused rock that stuck with me through the whole year. Big fuzzed out guitar solos meet harmonica riffs to create an album that almost perfectly balances down-home sincerity and rock’n’roll bravado. If you have a guitar-solo shaped hole in your heart this year, look no further than New Moon’s closing track, “Supermoon”: its eight minutes of shredding should satisfy you. Songs like “Half Angel Half Light,” “The Bird Song,” and “Freaky” get stuck in your head, giving New Moon an accessibility that Open Your Heart was missing. In a year lacking great rock’n’roll albums (at least I didn’t hear more than a couple), New Moon is the best of the lot.
The self-proclaimed sequel to his first album, She Must and Shall Go Free, Derek Webb’s I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You hearkens back to his debut’s acoustic stylings and its direct address to the Church. And a worthy follow-up it is, full of creative indie folk and Webb’s now trademark incisive lyrics. On I Was Wrong, the ten years that have elapsed since Webb’s debut are as evident in the music as they are in Webb’s worn, wise lyrics. “Everything Will Change” and “A Place at Your Table” find Webb again calling for the Church and its members to unite and show each other grace and understanding among the many different Christian traditions. The ultimate reason for this unity is expressed in “Lover Part 3,” another installment in his series of songs that focus on God’s unfailing love. Sung from God’s perspective, “Lover Part 3” reverberates with this simple idea: “I loved you then and, oh, I love you still.” Webb has spent his entire career proclaiming this message, and it’s no different on I Was Wrong.
5. Shad–Flying Colours
Everything Canadian hip-hop artist, Shad, does seems effortless. His easy-going flow twists and turns through polysyllabic rhymes, his lyrics bounce between jokes and dark realizations about the human condition, and, best of all, he makes it sound so simple. Deceptively complex, the album closer, “Epilogue: Long Jawn,” rambles and rolls over a laid back beat, while Shad peppers the track with a plethora of jokes, pop culture references, and puns. So many in fact, I guarantee it will take at least five listens to catch them all. On a deeper level, songs like “Progress Progress” deeply examine the issues and struggles of modern life, while “Love Means” offers a solution to the former’s dark depiction of racism, sexism, and violence. “Love Means,” essentially a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13, is one of the stars of Flying Colours, a tender, heartfelt track that features Shad’s trademark wit and spiritual insight, especially in the song’s coda (which, unfortunately, is far too long to quote). An album of good, clean fun, Flying Colours also provides plenty of food for thought.
4. Chance the Rapper–Acid Rap
A product of the currently red-hot Chicago hip-hop scene, Chance the Rapper represents an uprising of youth and eclecticism. Acid Rap feels fresh and exciting, a mixture of personal musings and unexpected revelations about growing up and living in a perilous urban environment. The production feels fresh, treading the line between hip-hop and R&B, especially on tracks like “Lost” and “Chain Smoker.” Not an album for those easily offended, Acid Rap nevertheless manages to deliver some poignancy amid Chance’s druggy tales. “Everybody’s Something” finds Chance reflecting on life and Chicago and where God might be in the mix: “And why God’s phone die every time I call on Him? If His Son had a Twitter wonder if I would follow Him.” While Acid Rap does not end with the redemption of an album like Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.a.d.d. City, it presents a complex, fascinating portrait of one young man’s journey in a murky, complicated world. Warning: explicit lyrics in the video below.
Just when you thought Arcade Fire couldn’t get any bigger, they decide to release a double album that jumps between exploring philosophical themes and reflecting on today’s obsession with technology. Late last year, in considering Reflektor’s relationship to Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, I didn’t get a chance mention the album’s fantastic music as much as I would have liked. While Win Butler’s lyrics are excellent, without the music Reflektor would lack the soul that drives it forward. “Here Comes the Night Time” comes alive with tropical flair and unconventional tempo changes, while “Normal Person” and “We Exist” are more typical Arcade Fire tracks, bursting with energy and creativity. Reflektor is an important album that deserves to be contemplated for years to come.
When I first listened to Pedestrian Verse early this year, I knew it was going to make an appearance on my year-end list. From opener “Acts of Man” to the closing notes of “The Oil Slick,” Frightened Rabbit delves into the dark, recessed areas of mankind, delivering a relentless album that honestly tackles the malady of the human condition. The album begins promising us that we will not find any ballads of “heroic acts of man,” because we are incapable of these heroic acts in of ourselves. Then there’s “Holy,” a surprisingly deft explanation of what Francis Spufford would call the “HPtFTu”: “Well I could dip my head in the river, cleanse my soul, I’ll still have the stomach of a sinner, face of an un-holy ghost.” Sentiments like this are scattered throughout the album, and this lyrical depth, coupled with gorgeous, soaring indie rock, elevates Pedestrian Verse to another level. If this all sounds a bit depressing for you, hold on until the end of the album, where “The Oil Slick” delivers this final word: “There is light, but there’s a tunnel to crawl through…there’s still hope, so I think we’ll be fine in these disastrous times.”
Modern Vampires of the City fulfills every criterion I look for in the best album of the year: thrilling music, strong album pacing, and insightful, thoughtful lyrics. On Modern Vampires, the band takes us on a spiritual odyssey, weaving through faith, doubt, and grace on their journey. An album preoccupied with questions of life, death, and what it means to be human, Modern Vampires rises to its weighty subject matter with lush instrumentation and a surprisingly un-ironic lyrical approach that treats these big issues with respect and sincerity. Lead singer Ezra Koenig directs several songs toward God, revealing insecurity, doubt, and a shaky faith. Yet, all these failures are shown grace. On “Everlasting Arms,” Koenig “hums the Dies Irae,” while God “plays the Hallelujah”; here, wrath is met and is not simply elided or postponed, but conquered and consumed by the joy and glory of the divine conducting an orchestra of forgiveness. And that symphony’s final, profound word comes on “Ya Hey”: “I can’t help but feel that you see the mistakes, but you let it go.”
Or get in touch.